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Nextbit Robin’s Smart Storage Impressive But Software Needs Refinement

When smartphone startup Nextbit announced its first smartphone, Robin, in September, the newly-formed company used Kickstarter to help fund the project.

The campaign quickly surpassed its original goal of $500,000, raising over $1.3 million during the campaign.

Now, just a few months later Nextbit will begin shipping Robin to Kickstarter backers on Feb. 18. There will also be a limited supply of handsets (I’m told between 3,000 and 6,000) available to order through the company’s online store with more inventory expected soon.

For more read Has Nextbit created the next ‘it’ phone?

The $399 handset is unlocked, allowing you to use it on a carrier of your choice. It’s available in two color schemes: mint or midnight.

For the spec-curious: Robin features a 5.2-inch display, 32 gigabytes of internal storage, three gigabytes of memory, a 2,680 milliamp-hour battery, a 13 megapixel rear-camera, a five megapixel front-facing camera—all of which is powered by Qualcomm’s (QCOM) Snapdragon 808 processor.

Robin is running a customized version of Google’s (GOOGL) Android 6.0 Marshmallow operating system and offers a fingerprint sensor on the side of the device embedded into the power button.

On paper, Robin looks like every other mid-range Android smartphone released in 2015. But what sets this phone apart from competing Android hardware manufacturers is Nextbit’s unique approach to how Robin handles storing all of the random files, photos, videos, and applications users put onto a smartphone.

In short, Nextbit claims it has designed a smartphone that will manage its storage without any interaction required of the user.

As the device’s storage begins filling up, Robin’s software evaluates the apps and photos you access the least, and it archives them to your Nextbit storage account. Each device comes with 100 GB of cloud storage for backing up and storing data.

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For example, say you installed and set up Snapchat on the Robin. But over the course of time, you quit using the service. As you install more applications and take more pictures, Robin is able to determine Snapchat is no longer a frequently used app, and it removes it from your device, freeing up storage space in the process. The app’s icon, however, is still present on your device—only it’s greyed out to indicate the app has been moved to the cloud.

Later, if you decide you want to use Snapchat, you can tap on the icon, and Robin will restore the app just as you left it. In other words, you’re not forced to set up the application or sign back in after it’s restored by Robin.

The review unit sent by Nextbit had most of its storage accounted for with specially-designed software in an effort to imitate what a user would experience after using the device for an extended amount of time.

Sure enough, as I began loading personal apps and taking photos or videos, the device began to proactively manage storage by archiving applications.

Granted, I wasn’t able to test the device’s judgment regarding which apps it chose to archive during the week I spent using it. But I was impressed by the seamless experience of the device making room for new apps and photos.

A similar approach is taken to photos and videos stored in the Gallery app, where Robin will leave a low-resolution thumbnail on the device and download the full-resolution copy when needed.

For more on Android watch our video.

Upon first glance, the Robin leaves little doubt that it’s a unique device. Instead of the now-standard rounded edges and curved displays, Robin is a rectangular device with square edges.

As time went on, I grew to appreciate the unique design characteristics with one exception—I couldn’t easily pick up the device and immediately identify if I was holding it in the proper orientation.

On an iPhone (AAPL), my fingers find either the home button along the bottom or the power button on the right side to let me know I’m holding it properly. With Robin, there are two speaker grills on the front of the device where a home button normally resides. Power and volume buttons are naturally present, but don’t protrude from the device enough for your fingers to easily find them.

Countless times I would pick up Robin or remove it from my pocket and attempt to unlock it, only to find I was holding it upside down.

Battery life on the device was a mixed bag. One day I would have to connect it to a charger around 3 p.m. to get through the rest of the day. The next day the device would last an entire day with no discernible difference in overall usage.

The camera was hit or miss as well. Some photos appeared overly muted in color, whereas other photos would capture the proper color and clarity.

Nextbit feels very much like the first version of a new product from a young company. Battery life and camera performance are inconsistent, and overall performance suffered at times. For example, on more than one occasion I would attempt to launch an app and nothing would happen. After a few seconds, I would have to tap on the multitasking button and force close the app. The next attempt to launch the app would work.

With that said, most of the issues I experienced with Robin can be fixed through software updates. Nextbit tells me an update is currently being developed that will address issues with the camera app.

Right now, it’s hard to proclaim Robin as a stand-out Android device among a long list of competing devices at this price point. There’s a lot of promise and potential to the way Robin handles storage, especially for those who are tired of constantly having to manage storage.

Is that peace of mind worth experiencing and overcoming the growing pains that accompany this device? I’m not sure.